The Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes last week sought to intervene in President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Nevada’s mail-in voting measure approved for the general election, saying the law provides key accommodations for tribal members who face voting challenges unique from urban areas, including a lack of mailboxes.
The tribal governments are specifically interested in protecting three key provisions granted by AB4, which lawmakers recently approved to bring changes to voting, including the ability to collect and deliver ballots on behalf of someone else, the distinction that a ballot with an unclear postmark will be accepted so long as it received within three days of Nov. 3 and mechanisms for tribes to request and receive early on-reservation polling locations.
“These efforts directly threaten proposed tribal intervenors’ rights and the ability of Native Americans in Nevada to cast their ballots and have those ballots count,” attorneys wrote in the brief filed Friday.
The tribes’ request to intervene comes on the heels of the Trump campaign’s move to narrow the scope of the lawsuit to focus on the provision that allows ballots with unclear postmarks to be accepted up to three days after Election Day. The campaign’s initial challenge, filed in early August, requested a federal court to block the law entirely, citing constitutional issues.
Attorneys for the tribes explained that while mail-in voting has created new obstacles for tribal members to cast votes, they understand the need for the shift as members are 3 and 1/2 times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 than their white counterparts.
Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske consented to the motion to intervene, but the Trump campaign opposed it. The tribes requested an expedited review, citing a time-sensitive case with the election only weeks away.
Native Americans account for 1.7 percent of the state population, with more than 52,000 people who identify as such.
But despite the relatively high number of eligible voters, a 2018 National Congress of American Indians report shows the turnout rate for registered American Indian and Alaskan Native voters is between one to 10 percentage points lower than the turnout rates for other racial and ethnic groups.
Obstacles to the ballot box
Native American populations have long faced obstacles in exercising their right to vote, which wasn’t granted by every state in the U.S. until 1962. Since then, other barriers have continued to suppress voter turnout.
And while the mail-in voting process may provide an easier option to vote for some Nevadans, it poses major obstacles for tribal communities.
“Geographic isolation, significant distance from post offices, limited rural post office hours, lack of transportation options, lack of Internet access, and other socio-economic factors, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, make it very difficult for Walker River Paiute and Pyramid Lake members to cast their ballots by mail,” states the tribes’ motion.
Many tribal members living on reservations do not have mailboxes and don’t receive residential mail delivery. Only 35 percent of reservations and colonies in the state have a home mail service.
Neither the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe nor the Walker River Paiute Tribe had ballot drop boxes located on the reservations for the 2020 primary election in June.
Nine of the 14 reservations and colonies in the state lack a post office within jurisdictional boundaries. While most of the 2,500 tribal members between the two tribes receive and drop mail at the nearest post office, access to post offices is limited for rural tribal communities. The average distance from a reservation or colony to a postal office with regular business hours is 54 miles — more than 100 miles round-trip.
Additionally, many tribal members lack access to a car, or must spend more money on gas in order to drive the longer distances between county seats and reservations, which is an average distance of 67 miles. The Goshute reservation is the farthest in the state from a county seat, which is 135 miles from Ely in White Pine County.
Given the obstacles tribal members must overcome in order to reach the ballot box, the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes aim to ensure the provisions that help their community members vote will be protected amid Trump’s legal threat.
Often called “ballot collection,” or “ballot harvesting” by conservative leaders, a provision of AB4 that allows individuals to turn in ballots for others is a priority for tribal members who are limited in their access to post offices or vehicles.
“In the short term, A.B. 4 provides much needed relief to Native Americans by suspending the ballot assistance bans in times of emergency, allowing non-family members, such as individuals, political parties, community organizers, and other groups like the Walker River Paiute Community Health Representatives, to safely return a ballot for one another in the upcoming election,” states the tribes’ motion.
The tribes’ attorneys also say that the provision to accept ballots with unclear postmarks received within three days after Election Day more directly affects Native American voters because of the distance to post offices and longer routes for Native American ballots to reach county seats. Finally, AB4 maintains tribes’ rights to request polling locations on reservations, which Nevada tribes achieved through a lawsuit against the secretary of state in 2016.
In late March, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requesting that the agency delay a public comment period for a controversial and complicated project to do maintenance on the Truckee Canal, a manmade diversion off the Truckee River.
In the letter, the tribe asked to reschedule public workshops and government-to-goverment consultation with the agency, responsible for managing dams and diversions across the West.
But the agency denied the request.
In a letter responding to the tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Area Manager, Terri Edwards, declined to push back the April 20 public comment period. She noted that the federal agency had instead created an opportunity for virtual public comment to weigh in on an environmental analysis for the Truckee Canal project and offered to conduct a consultation remotely.
“We have told Reclamation numerous times since that letter that we don’t think that a video conference or a telephone conference with the council would suffice under their obligation to hold government-to-government consultation,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe.
The tribe was hardly the only party that objected to the bureau’s decision. Officials with the City of Fernley also wanted Reclamation to push back the comment deadline due to the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19: limiting public meetings and encouraging residents to stay at home. When Reclamation denied the requests, Fernley sued in federal court.
“Non-essential governmental and legal proceedings of all types have been placed on hold, and deadlines have been tolled,” lawyers for Fernley wrote on April 9. “Despite this, and the fact other federal agencies have already granted COVID-19 extensions for public comment periods, Reclamation denied numerous requests to extend its April 20, 2020, deadline…”
The lawsuit highlights an issue that has frustrated everyone from local municipalities to tribes and environmental groups. What should state and federal agencies, responsible for collecting public comments on major decisions, do when they can no longer convene the public in person? Even if the public can comment online, is it a sufficient alternative during a public health crisis?
State and federal agencies have offered mixed messages on how they intend to move forward. But in most cases, agencies are approaching the issue on a case-by-case basis.
The public comment process is a key part of the process for analyzing the environmental impacts of actions, from permitting mines to leasing oil and gas, on federal land. With federal land comprising about 85 percent of the state, many of these decisions are closely watched.
“Public comment periods are an incredibly important tool for ensuring that the public has a role in making federal decisions with significant environmental, economic, and cultural impacts,”Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen wrote to the Department of Interior on April 3.
In the letter, the senators requested that the agency, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, extend open public comment periods indefinitely and postpone future public comment periods.
But the department did not issue any overarching policy. Instead, 10 days later, it offered guidance for bureaus within the department, including on virtual public comment meetings.
As Reclamation moves forward with the canal project, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 65 percent of the state’s land, is looking at it on a “case-by-case basis.”
“Our actions, such as comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for appropriate public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” said Chris Rose, a spokesman for the state office, noting that the BLM was taking comment through mail or email.
Agencies often have to walk a fine line. If they do not provide ample opportunity for the public to comment on governmental action and permitting, they could face litigation to undo a decision.
And the issues are not only on the federal level.
On April 10, three groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity — wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak asking the governor to cease public comment periods for mines and suspend permitting during the COVID-19 process.
“Amid this global crisis, permitting mines has continued unhindered despite the fact that the public can not be reasonably expected to engage in ongoing public comment periods,” the groups wrote in a letter. “Many who would normally engage in commenting are in crisis as infection rates rise, and we reach record levels of unemployment.”
In the letter, the groups identified another issue that hampers the ability of groups, especially in rural communities, to weigh in on governmental decisions: limited access to the internet.
Fernley raised a similar issue in its lawsuit over public comment for the Truckee Canal project. It argued that domestic well owners, with limited access to the internet, might be shut out from the process. But the agency argued in court filings that in-person meetings were not mandatory.
And on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du agreed.
Du dismissed the case and wrote in her order that “contrary to Fernley’s argument, the duties it seeks to impose on Reclamation are discretionary, rather than mandatory.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a preliminary permit Thursday to build a new reservoir in the mountains above Pyramid Lake as part of an energy storage project.
The commission’s approval comes despite environmental and cultural concerns that were expressed in comments from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which manages most of the land where the project would be sited. The reservoir would be sited in the Lake Range, east of Pyramid Lake, in an area where there are traditional tribal gathering locations and burial sites.
The proposed pumped storage project, backed by Premium Energy Holdings, is one of several proposals in Nevada. Such projects could store solar energy that can be tapped when the sun is not shining. They use excess solar energy to pump water from a low reservoir — in this case Pyramid Lake — to a higher-elevation reservoir. When energy is needed, water from the upper reservoir would be released back to the lake, running through a tunnel and a powerhouse.
Although the preliminary permit gives the company priority to develop the project, it does not give the company a license to build the project or access to conduct on-site studies without the tribe's permission.
In a comment letter filed in November, the tribe said it was opposed to the project “due to the lack of consultation and coordination” with the company. The tribe, in its letter, listed numerous environmental concerns, from water rights to the impact on habitat for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, the endangered native cui-ui and bighorn sheep reintroduced to the Lake Range.
During the comment period for the preliminary permit, Premium Energy Holdings said it intended to work with the tribe, and that it would get permission from the tribe before conducting any on-site studies.
Tribal members, conservationists and students, bundled up in thick coats and beanies, gathered in two rows fanning out from transport trailers to watch the release into tribal land, an area usually closed to the public. Bighorn sheep, separated into two trailers, rushed out in waves.
First came the ewes. The rams came next. As the sun went down behind Pyramid Lake, more than 20 sheep leaped off transport trailers and sprinted back to their historic range.
Reintroducing bighorn sheep to the Lake Range “was something that we needed to do,” said Alan Mandell, the vice chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Once numerous on the peaks above Pyramid Lake, bighorn sheep have not been seen in the mountains for about a century.
For decades, tribal officials and conservationists worked with state wildlife managers to figure out a way to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Lake Range, which rises east of the desert lake. Bighorn sheep all but disappeared on the tribe's land — and across the West — in the early 1900s as Western expansion decimated their ranks through disease and overhunting.
With the reintroduction, on a brisk January evening last week, that began to change.
“It was such a magnificent moment because the smiles on their faces — their respect, their worship, their appreciation of these animals,” said Larry Johnson, who leads Nevada’s Coalition for Wildlife. “I wish we could somehow transfer that respect and awe of wildlife to the general public of Nevada and garner the kind of support that was exhibited on the reservation."
Now the sheep are heading north. Biologists believe that the bighorn sheep will repopulate in the area around Hell’s Kitchen Canyon. It’s on Pyramid Lake’s northeast shore and it leads up to rocky terrain. There are natural water sources and good vegetation at high elevations. And the rugged terrain provides plenty of escape routes.
“Mountain lions aren’t as quick on the rocks,” said Emily Hagler, a biologist for the tribe.
The release earlier this month was a daylong effort years in the making. Before the sheep could be let out to roam free, biologists and other state officials needed to capture them.
Around 4:45 a.m. on Jan. 13, long before the sun rose and hundreds of miles away from the reservation near Reno, a team of tribal leaders and state wildlife managers left Winnemucca. They headed to a staging area in the Sheep Creek Range northeast of Battle Mountain.
“We got there just as the sun was rising,” Hagler said in an interview recounting the day.
Soon after, a helicopter crew took off. The crew was charged with capturing bighorn sheep using a net gun and flying them back to the staging area. There, they were tagged with location monitors, and an NDOW veterinarian examined their vital signs, a critical step.
The stress of a capture can drive up body temperatures in sheep — a possible sign of “capture myopathy,” a disease that results in muscle damage and is often deadly.
“We had some hot temperatures that we didn't like to see on the animals,” Mike Cox, a bighorn staff biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), said in an interview this week.
Cox has worked on dozens of captures, and rarely misses one. He said that he once showed up to a capture on crutches and a broken leg. And in any given year, Cox said NDOW might capture about 150 bighorn sheep, checking them for disease or relocating sheep to repopulate historic ranges. In that sense, the capture last week was a routine operation for wildlife officials.
Then he stopped himself: “But it’s more than just another one.”
It marked the first time that the state agency has released bighorn sheep on tribal land in Nevada. For the tribe, it was another step in recovering wildlife lost to Western expansion.
“We didn't do nice things to the land during the settlement of the West,” Johnson said.
There is a sparse written record of bighorn sheep at Pyramid Lake. But sheep are documented on petroglyphs dating back thousands of years. Coming upon Pyramid Lake, the explorer John C. Frémont noted “herds of mountain sheep” in an 1844 journal entry. Mandell said that some bighorn sheep bones have been found in old fire pits. Traditionally, the sheep provided the tribe with sustenance, Hagler said. Horns were used in ceremony and hides were used for clothes.
That was until they vanished from the landscape. Sheep were not the only culturally-connected wildlife extirpated by Western settlement. Mandell described the bighorn sheep release as fitting into a broader recovery, especially around the tribe’s efforts to restore native fish species.
In the early 1900s, the federal government helped construct a dam on the Truckee River to bring irrigation water to nearby Fallon. But doing so diverted water away from Pyramid Lake, disrupting fish habitats and access to spawning grounds for the cui-ui and the cutthroat trout, two fish species that tribal members relied on for food and to support their local economy.
After decades, cutthroat trout were eventually reintroduced to Pyramid Lake, translocated from populations of fish at Summit Lake in Humboldt County.
“This is just another species that we’ve re-introduced and will manage,” Mandell said.
By mid-afternoon, after the trailers left the staging area near Battle Mountain, tribal members gathered at a gym on the reservation for a potluck. Around 3:30 p.m., they left in a long line of vehicles caravanning up a road around the east side of the lake and toward the release area.
After the trailers eventually arrived as the sun began to set, tribal member Terrence Wright led the group in a prayer. Wright said it was neat to see a project that would bridge generations.
“I told my grandson,” he said after the release, “one day you can tell your grandkids that you helped bring them down. It’s really neat because a lot of the things we do are for our kids.”
The release began, and sheep started darting out of the trailers.
And then an ewe stumbled out of the trailer and fell onto the ground, as the other ewes continued running away in the distance. The crowd grew silent. NDOW officials rushed around the ewe. She was diagnosed with capture myopathy, suffering damage to her back leg and hip, Cox said. The NDOW team huddled around the sheep long after the only light came from car headlights.
By the next morning, the ewe had passed away.
“It was sad,” Mandell said, pausing. “It was sad.”
The effects of capture myopathy can last about two weeks. Another setback: Six days after the release, a ram passed away, said Cox, who had not yet seen the results of the necropsy.
Although predators remain a threat to the sheep, the goal now will be to grow the population into the hundreds over the next decade. Depending on habitat conditions, Cox said the 20 remaining sheep could increase to 30 next year, reaching about 100 in six to seven years. On the phone, Cox sounded hopeful. The reservation’s habitat, he said, was “tailor-made” for sheep.
The effort to protect and preserve the population will be led by the tribe. Hagler said that serving as the lead agency was significant, “an expression of the tribe's sovereign rights to self-govern.”
Since the release, she has watched the bighorn sheep disperse into the range. She said they are herding up and heading north toward the rocky areas that should protect them from lions.
“A few haven't quite found their friends yet,” she said. “But they should find them soon.”
This year, we told you stories about people — about the mom of Erick Silva, the security guard who was killed during the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and other rural Nevada residents pressing for expanded dental services and the humans responsible for the day-to-day homeless outreach in Las Vegas.
We brought you depth and nuance, including an explainer on the Colorado River, a video about how a bill becomes a law and a tracker where we kept tabs on all of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s promises and what he did to fulfill them.
Our reporters took time away from the daily grind to pursue deeply reported projects, including series on the Anaconda Copper Mine, education in rural Nevada and the state’s marijuana industry.
We told you a lot of stories — more than 2,000 by our count — with a small but dedicated team of reporters, a sharp crew of interns and a couple of tireless editors.
Below we’ve included some of those that were our favorites to tell this year. Tweet @TheNVIndy and let us know what your favorite stories we told this year were, too.
Jan. 27: “The Colorado River equation, the drought plan and why things have stopped adding up”
The federal government has historically allowed states to make many decisions about how the federal government’s complex system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River should be managed. With that freedom in jeopardy earlier this year, reporter Daniel Rothberg put together this deep dive into how the Colorado River Compact was negotiated and how Nevada has prepared for drought cut plans.
Feb. 3: “The Sisolak Promise Tracker”
Coming out of the 2018 election cycle and heading into the 2019 legislative session, many questions were being raised as to just how far and how much new Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic-led majorities in either legislative chamber would attempt to accomplish in the 120-day session. After covering the 2018 campaign and past legislative sessions, reporter Riley Snyder came up with the idea of creating the Sisolak Promise Tracker, merging the governor’s campaign promises with his actual actions taken during the legislative session.
Drawing on Sisolak’s State of the State address and various plans and public statements made as a candidate, the promise tracker aimed to give readers a sense of what Sisolak had (and had not) accomplished throughout the legislative session, and which priorities were either not addressed or saw significant compromises. The Promise Tracker will continue into the 2021 legislative session and will remain as an accountability journalism project for whoever is governor after the 2022 election cycle.
March 14: “The Indy Explains: How a bill becomes a law”
“I’m just a bill. Yes I am only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…”
We all know and love the Schoolhouse Rock classic. But multimedia editor Joey Lovato and legislative reporters Riley Snyder, Michelle Rindels and Megan Messerly thought that Nevada deserved its own state-specific version.
This 4-minute video takes you from the idea phase to when a bill is signed into law.
April 26: “Latina entrepreneur overcomes financial barriers, cultural taboos to build cannabis business”
Lawmakers authorized marijuana sales for recreational use in Nevada in 2017. But the issue has still been surrounded by controversy. From the lack of diversity in the industry to marijuana banking issues, there’s always something to talk about with the marijuana industry in the Silver State.
Against that backdrop, reporter Luz Gray wrote about a Latina businesswoman in the industry, who shared with her the financial challenges, cultural taboos, and the peculiar story of how she ended up as a founder of a company that grows marijuana not too far from the Las Vegas Strip.
May 5: “Tribal, rural communities face off against dentists in debate over creating mid-level dental provider”
There are a lot of things wrong with health care in the United States, Nevada included. We focus a lot on the lack of hospitals and doctors, but we don’t often talk a lot about dentists and the difficulties that rural communities — and, particularly, tribal communities — face in accessing dental care.
It’s a story about politics and policy — but it’s also a story about the very real humans affected by decisions made in the halls of a legislative building sometimes hundreds of miles away.
June 9: “Follow the Money: Big-money donors drive more than $1 million in fundraising for Sisolak’s 2018 bid for governor"
Parsing Nevada’s campaign finance reports can be cumbersome and time consuming. Large donors, whether individuals or corporations, can use anywhere from five, 10 or 20 different entities to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars in some of the state’s biggest ticket races.
Reporter Jacob Solis — with an assist from Jodi Snyder, mom of reporter Riley Snyder — categorized more than 3,400 donations totaling more than $11 million to break down just who funded the campaign of the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades.
July 28: “On the campaign trail, deported veterans advocate to bring their ‘brothers’ home”
Presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, love talking about veterans. But they don’t often like to broach the subject of veterans the country has deported.
This summer, intern Michaela Chesin explored what life is like for deported veterans and their families — interviewing a Marine who was deported to Mexico a dozen years after he was convicted of a felony marijuana charge — and what advocates are doing to get candidates to commit to bringing them back to the United States.
Sept. 15: "From an Elko basque festival to the Las Vegas storm drains, Castro shoots the moon in Nevada"
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has not caught fire in the Democratic presidential race. But he’s connected with Nevadans in a very real way, going places that no other candidates have gone. He’s been to the tunnels beneath the Las Vegas Strip where some of the city’s homeless live, and he’s also toured the Anaconda Copper Mine outside of Yerington.
In this story, reporter Megan Messerly explores Castro’s campaign in Nevada and whether it’s likely to make any difference in the presidential race overall.
Sept. 22-24: “What Anaconda Left Behind”
In this deeply reported series, reporter Daniel Rothberg explored the history of a seven-decade-old copper mine outside of Yerington, the Anaconda Copper Mine, and the contamination it left behind. His stories examine the extensive cleanup of the mine the state is overseeing, arguments over the extent of contamination related to the mine and whether the mine is responsible for it and overarching perceptions about the mine.
Sept. 29: “As more jobs are automated, Las Vegas set to be center stage for economic shifts”
Studies show that Nevada is poised to be at the epicenter of a coming automation boom — and its service sector is particularly vulnerable. But is it all doom and gloom? Depends on who you ask.
Most of the reporting on automation has been event driven, for instance, looks at MGM Resorts’ installation of automated drink machines back-of-house. But reporter Jacob Solis took a holistic look at the issue, including how those on the Strip and elsewhere are preparing for a new, more robotic future.
Oct. 1: “Two years after security guard’s death in Oct. 1 massacre, mother’s music helps keep his memory alive”
At a community event at the end of July, reporter Luz Gray spotted a woman and some of her relatives wearing white t-shirts with the message “our hero forever” on them with a picture of the woman’s son, Erick Silva, on them. She approached the woman, Angelica Cervantes, to talk to her.
Silva lost his life while working as a security guard during the October 1 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, which resulted in 58 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Silva managed to save 7 people.
Luz says what stayed with her after writing a story about Cervantes was not only the courage that she and her family found to keep going after the tragedy, but the moving way she found to express her pain and keep her son's memory alive: through the songs she wrote herself.
Oct. 6: “State Republican Party chair did little work for second job as dental board lobbyist, records show”
Over the past year, reporter Riley Snyder has delved deep into the conflict-ridden world of how state and local agencies pay for professional contract lobbyists — a topic that has drawn the attention of Gov. Steve Sisolak and could see major changes in the next legislative session.
Oct. 9: “How much value do parents place on school star ratings? It depends.”
Every September, principals, teachers and other school leaders wait with bated breath for the Nevada Department of Education’s annual star ratings. Based on student test scores and some other factors, they’re a big deal in the education world because they place a “grade” on a school’s performance. Interestingly, not all parents care too much, as reporter Jackie Valley found while reporting out this story. Some interviewed said they place more value on individual teacher quality as opposed to an overall school rating.
Oct. 25: “Sheriff ends formal ICE partnership, but questions linger about informal collaborations, policies outside of Vegas”
One of the most significant news stories this year has been Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s decision to withdraw from the controversial 287(g) program — a jail-based partnership with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But that decision didn’t happen in a vacuum. Advocates have been raising concerns about the partnership for years and made an ultimately unsuccessful push to change things during the 2019 legislative session. Reporters Michelle Rindels and Luz Gray have been following the issue all this year and beyond, including personal stories about people affected, a review of records that helped quantify the situation at a time when information about the scope of the program has been all but impossible to obtain, and coverage of the people who are now making it a priority to restore the partnership.
Nov. 10 - Dec. 8: “The Cannabis Files”
Nevada’s cannabis industry seemed to be in good shape after the 2016 legalization of recreational marijuana, but recently, problems have emerged — a lot of problems. For the past year, the Indy has been keeping an especially close eye on the topic as businesses sued over a contentious round of dispensary licensing last December, a long court proceeding on the matter dominated the summer, and Gov. Steve Sisolak has called for a major overhaul and ramped-up enforcement this fall. Our latest work on this front is The Cannabis Files — an ongoing, occasional series spearheaded by reporter Michelle Rindels exploring newly released state records on marijuana company ownership and what they tell us about the contours of an industry that had long been secretive. The first four installments are here, but check out our entire marijuana category for even more coverage of an industry in flux.
Nov. 24: “For Las Vegas homeless outreach teams, success is a moving target”
Intern Shannon Miller took a first-hand look at the work that the city of Las Vegas’s Multi-agency Outreach Resources Engagement (MORE) teams, dedicated to connecting people on the streets with resources, including emergency shelters, drug detox and transitional housing, engage in. Earlier in November, the City Council passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to sit or camp in public rights-of-way in parts of the city, which may increase demand for MORE services in the coming months.
Dec. 1: “A Helping Hand”
Most education tug-of-wars boil down to money: Who’s getting it? Who’s not? And where can we find more? There’s a general consensus that Nevada’s public school system needs a cash infusion, but education reporter Jackie Valley says it can be tiresome to write about what seems like a never-ending saga — chronic underfunding.
That’s why Jackie says she enjoyed reporting this story about a longstanding partnership between the Lincoln County and Clark County school districts that involves the donation — and adoption — of school furniture and some equipment. It touches on funding problems, but it also shows how taxpayer dollars can be extended when school districts work together.
Dec. 2: “One of the few major cities without one, Las Vegas may soon get an art museum”
If you have a free afternoon to spare in a big city, you might think of stopping by the local art museum. But don’t try to do that in Las Vegas.
Southern Nevada, though a bastion of artistic attractions, remains one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. without an accredited art museum. But that all could change soon, as the Nevada Museum of Art, headquartered in Reno, plans to expand to Las Vegas.
Long before the casinos, mines and brothels, long before Las Vegas, Reno and Elko, and long before the snow-capped mountains earned this land the name Nevada, there were the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone people.
For centuries, they have called the Great Basin home. They gathered pinyon pine nuts before the silver-rich Comstock Lode was discovered, creating a crushing demand for the trees that were used to fuel mining operations. The Paiute fished the Cui-ui from Pyramid Lake before its water was diverted for agriculture. They drank the water before there were any mines or hazardous chemical runoff to worry about.
Now, fueled by a renewed sense of agency after the Dakota access pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 and recent electoral victories, including the election of Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids as the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, Native leaders say they’re preparing to make a stand in the 2020 election — starting with Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus in February.
Their message to presidential hopefuls is simple: The Native vote matters too.
“So much of the political system has ignored the Indian vote,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance and a member of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma. “That is changing.”
It’s not just that it matters because Native voices should matter. Votes from tribal communities could actually be the margin of difference in Nevada, both in the state’s Democratic presidential caucus in February and the general election in November.
Indigenous people make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population, with significant pockets living on reservations in rural Nevada, and the voting rights organization Four Directions estimates that the Native voting age population in Nevada will be nearly 67,000 by the time of the 2020 election, though it’s unclear how many are registered to vote.
It’s a fact that presidential hopefuls are keenly aware of. Candidates have sent representatives to the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, released Native-specific policies and even used their bully pulpits to draw attention to issues affecting Indian Country here, including a longstanding proposal to construct a long-term, high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, which is sacred to the Shoshone and Paiute peoples, and contamination related to the Anaconda Copper Mine outside of Yerington.
“I think there’s an increase in outreach to Indian Country. I’ve noticed that since the last election,” said Laurie Thom, chairman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe. “I think there’s been more activity, and they’re more proactive in reaching out to the tribal leaders.”
But not all candidate outreach has been equal — or received equally. Several tribal leaders in Nevada named Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the candidate most fluent in Native American issues, and some have even endorsed him, citing a longstanding commitment to Native communities and the efforts he has made to meet with them during trips to the state. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also received a prominent endorsement from a tribal chairman in the state.
Native leaders appreciate the outreach from candidates, but it’s a two-way street. They want to be invited to presidential candidates’ events, but they want candidates to come to their events, too.
To that end, they’re planning a Native American presidential forum at UNLV in mid-January, which will bring together leaders from Nevada’s 27 tribes as well as those from surrounding states to hear from Democratic presidential hopefuls, attend planning meetings on how to turn out the Native vote nationally and host caucus trainings.
The forum will be the second-ever of its kind — the first was hosted in Sioux City, Iowa in August — but organizers say the Native vote isn’t going to make a difference in Iowa, where just 0.5 percent of the population identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native. It could in Nevada.
The Native vote isn’t a monolith, but experts say that it tends to lean blue. And with the way that delegate math works in the presidential caucus, winning rural Nevada could be the key to victory in a close race — just ask Barack Obama, who lost the popular vote in Nevada in 2008 but came out of the state with the most delegates, largely because of his organizing in rural portions of the state.
And in a small turnout election — 118,000 Democrats caucused in Nevada in 2008 and 84,000 in 2016 — every vote counts.
“I think the candidates are actually considering and thinking about tribes,” said Alan Mandell, vice chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “In a caucus state like us, it could make a good difference.”
Sanders, speaking at a town hall in Carson City last week, opened with a tirade against the U.S. government and its treatment of Native Americans. It was the first address given by a presidential candidate in Indian Country in Nevada this year.
“Everybody in this room knows the way that the United States government has treated the Native American people from day one is a shame and a disgrace,” Sanders said, addressing a crowd of about 400 that had gathered the Washoe Tribe’s Stewart Community Center. “We need our Native American brothers and sisters to go all over this country and, as president, that’s what I will ask them — to explain sustainability to the American people and to the world.”
Later in the event, the Vermont senator was asked what specifically he would do to help Indigenous families. He launched into another scathing attack of the government, its treatment of the land and its failure to fulfill its treaty obligations. He then pivoted to corporations, which he criticized for only being able to see as far at the end of the financial quarter, where Native communities, he said, consider the impact their actions will have for generations.
“You don’t destroy your source of food. You don’t wipe out the buffalo if you’re dependent upon that for food. You don’t poison the water if you need water to drink,” Sanders said. “That’s what they have understood, and that when you look at your policy, what you do is you look at it over a long period of time, not just the end of the quarter and the profits that you make.”
It was a moment that highlighted the cultural fluency that several Native leaders in Nevada pointed to in interviews when trying to explain why Sanders has such resonance within their communities. The idea Sanders was obliquely referencing is the Native American principle that decisions should be considered in view of the impact that they will have on the next seven generations.
Rulon Pete, the executive director of the Las Vegas Indian Center, isn’t endorsing ahead of the 2020 election. He can’t, by virtue of the nonpartisan outreach to Native voters his organization will conduct over the next year. But, looking at the 2020 field, he said there’s only one candidate that has displayed a “full comprehension” of Native issues.
“That would just be, of course, Senator Sanders,” said Pete, an enrolled member of the Cedar Band of Paiutes and Navajo. “I'm not saying that I'm endorsing any one of them, but I felt like if there were anyone reaching out to Native communities, it would be him.”
Pete spoke on a panel discussion that Sanders hosted at the LGBTQ Center in Las Vegas earlier this year. He also attended a discussion hosted by Valerie Biden Owens, the former vice president’s sister. But he said that he didn’t feel like she, and by extension her brother, had as full of an understanding of the issues as Sanders does.
“It didn't seem genuine to me,” Pete said.
Of the handful of endorsements that have been made by Native community leaders in Nevada, most have gone to Sanders. His most recent was from Thom, the chairman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, who announced her support for him this week and was named one of his Nevada campaign’s co-chairs.
Thom got to know Sanders during a meeting she attended with Native leaders after a rally at the University of Nevada, Reno in September. During the meeting, they had a chance to share their concerns with the senator, and she said that she was “very impressed” by his understanding of Native issues.
“He said he was going to need our help to make sure [action is taken] with our consent and not just consultation, and that he would be willing to work with Indian County to ensure that treaty rights and other rights are being served sovereign to sovereign,” Thom said.
Earlier this month, Thom took the senator’s wife, Jane Sanders, on a tour of the Anaconda Copper Mine outside of Yerington, which contaminated a toxic groundwater plume that has snaked below homes and toward the tribe’s reservation. They also visited the tribe’s dispensary, toured their health clinic and had a discussion about the disproportionate impact that federal government shutdowns have on tribes.
Sanders campaign officials say this kind of outreach is a natural outgrowth of the senator’s personal interest in tribal communities. But it’s also a byproduct of the staff’s interest and connections on the ground in Nevada.
Early on in the campaign, a staffer and a volunteer made the decision to attend Western Shoshone National Council Chief Johnnie Bobb’s annual peaceful protest and sacred walk in opposition to the construction of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. While there, they filmed people talking about their opposition to the nuclear waste dump and, in May, released a video drawing attention to the issue.
Another staffer recently joined an Indigenous walk down a Northern Nevada highway to honor the lives lost in accidents along that road.
“It was really spiritual and provided a lot of clarity to why I’m doing this as a campaign staffer, and I know they appreciated having a campaign staffer there in support,” said Jacob Allen, Sanders’ Northern Nevada political associate.
The campaign has also attended Inter-Tribal Council meetings, hosted a town hall with the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Schurz, had a table at the 27th Elko Band Pow Wow in September and hosted two Native-specific roundtables, including the one at the UNR and a second, smaller gathering in Elko earlier this month. It was directly in response to concerns raised during that meeting that Sanders came out against opening federal land to oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains.
For the campaign, outreach to Indian Country is an end unto itself: It’s important because the tribal community is important. But his team acknowledges it’s at least partly strategic too.
“We are very aware that there will be precincts in rural Nevada that will be majority Native voters, and we want to get as many delegates as we can in every precinct. That means organizing in every corner of the state and that means making sure we are organizing in these neighborhoods and rural areas where these Native folks live,” said Sarah Michelsen, Sanders’ state director. “We did really well in Northern Nevada in 2016. We think the Native vote was probably key to our success then, and we think that’s going to be critical again.”
Sanders may be the candidate most often mentioned by tribal leaders in Nevada, but he’s far from the only one focused on Native outreach in the Silver State and nationally.
OJ Seamans, co-director of Four Directions, said one candidate that stood out to him most was Harris. He noted that while she butted heads with tribes as California’s attorney general, after she participated in the August Native American presidential forum, she developed a Native policy on federal lands.
“To me, that showed that people listened at that form because she went from having no idea to actually saying, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do,’” said Seamans, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who is working with Native organizers in Nevada.
Mandell, vice chair of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said he first met Harris during a trip she made to Carson City in April. But it was the release of Harris’s Native policy that persuaded him to endorse the California senator for president in October.
“I kind of followed her in California as a neighboring state. I just liked her. And then she came out with a set of Native American policies that she had put out,” Mandell said. “I liked the policy itself.”
Warren’s campaign has engaged in specific Native outreach in Nevada, with staffers speaking at two recent Inter-Tribal Council meetings and participating in community meetings with members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Schurz and the Wells Band of the Te-Moak Shoshone Tribe in Wells.
She also released a wide-ranging Native policy in August before her appearance at the Native American presidential forum, and was the first candidate to oppose military expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, which is sacred land for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, after her staffers met with environmental Native leaders about the issue.
But Warren has another barrier to overcome with the Native community: Her decades-old claim of Native American ancestry and her attempt to back it up with a DNA test. But feelings among the Native community here are far from homogenous on the subject. Some view her actions as egregious and her apologies to the Cherokee Nation superficial. Others are hesitant to judge her background.
“I’m really big on, like, I don’t know people’s backgrounds, and I’m not going to slander anybody if they say they’re part of a community. I don’t know if they are or not,” said Teresa Melendez, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi who is active in Native organizing in Nevada and has endorsed Sanders. “I’ve been giving Warren the benefit of the doubt.”
Other Native leaders have done the same. Haaland, one of the two Native American women in Congress, endorsed Warren in July, and Walker River Paiute Chairman Amber Torres announced her support for the senator in October. Torres did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaign, meanwhile, has former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera in his corner. Oceguera is a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe and was the first Native American to serve as speaker in the state’s history.
The campaign has been engaging through its political and organizing teams with the Paiute Tribe in Southern and Northern Nevada and the Te-Moak Shoshone Tribe of Western Nevada, which took part in the program for Biden’s town hall in Elko. Biden also has a fellow on staff in Elko from the Te-Moak tribe who is focused on Native engagement and outreach.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg released his Native plan in October, and his Nevada team has participated in events with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Elko Band Colony of the Te-Moak tribe. Just last weekend, Buttigieg organizers were focusing on outreach to the Corn Creek area of the Las Vegas Indian Colony.
Buttigieg’s campaign is also trying to schedule a Native-specific tele-town hall before Nevada’s presidential caucus.
It’s not just the top polling candidates with the biggest staffs that are focusing on Native outreach, either. A spokeswoman for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said that Campaign Manager Addisu Demissie met with the president of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony both in August and October, while Castro and Williamson are two candidates noted for their Native outreach.
Mercedes Krause, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and executive director of United Natives who is active in Native organizing in Southern Nevada, said that during a meeting earlier this year Williamson actually got on her website and started making changes to her policy platform.
“She wanted to learn,” Krause said.
Melendez, who also met with Williamson, described the author’s work as “heart-centered” and said that it falls easily in line with Native epistemology.
“It was a really easy conversation. Like three hours,” Melendez said. “I always enjoy a conversation with Marianne because she gets it at a heart level that people who are entrenched in corporate American and politics sometimes don’t because there’s so much money involved.”
And then there’s Castro, the only presidential candidate to visit the Anaconda Copper Mine himself. He also released a comprehensive Native policy in July and was the second candidate to join Warren in her opposition to the military’s proposed expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Thom drew a parallel between Castro’s Anaconda visit and his tour of the tunnels beneath the Las Vegas Strip to talk with the city’s homeless population.
“When he was down in Vegas, he did visit areas that most candidates don’t go,” Thom said. “He’s really trying to bring forth a lot of those issues to the debate.”
Much has changed in the last four years. Four years ago, Seamans and his group Four Directions were fighting with Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske on the behalf of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Walker River Paiute Tribe.
The tribes argued in a lawsuit that the state of Nevada and Washoe and Mineral counties had violated the Voting Rights Act by denying their requests for polling places on their reservations, citing cost and logistical concerns. In the end, a federal judge sided with the tribes on the grounds that the public interest is served by enforcing the Voting Rights Act and “the inclusion of protected classes in the political process.”
Not only did the tribes get their requested polling sites in Nixon and Schurz, but the case has been used as a precedent in other Native voting rights cases across the country, Seamans said.
On top of that, the Legislature passed a bill, SB492, during the 2017 session codifying the judge’s ruling and requiring county clerks to establish at least one temporary branch polling location on reservations if requested with enough advance notice by the tribes.
“They call it the Silver State. I was calling it the Golden State because of what the Legislature did,” Seamans said. “You won’t find any of the other 50 states has that type of law.”
Other tribal polling sites for the 2016 election included the Moapa Tribal Administrative Building and the Washoe Elder Center and in 2018, there were four — in Nixon, Schurz, Moapa on the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation and Hungry Valley on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony reservation. So far, four are confirmed for the 2020 general election — Moapa, Nixon, Hungry Valley and a new site at Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s #6 Smoke Shop in Spanish Springs.
Seamans said his organization is in the process of having conversations with tribal leaders and informing them about the new law to boost the number of polling sites on reservations ahead of the 2020 election. Under the new law, tribes have until July 3, the first Friday in July, to submit their requests to their respective county clerks.
Allowing voting on reservations is key to boosting the Native vote, because people often don’t have the means to travel 50 or 100 miles to the nearest polling site, Seamans said. Four Directions conducted a survey before they filed their lawsuit and found that members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe had to travel as many as 70 miles to the nearest polling location, while some wealthy Lake Tahoe residents only had to travel 5 miles to their nearest satellite polling location.
“In our survey, we were able to identify that Natives were in the majority in the poverty level, and their vehicles were not trustworthy to travel long distances or even short distances unless there was some type of emergency,” Seamans said.
That’s something that the Nevada State Democratic Party is taking into consideration as well as it plans caucus sites. The party had caucus sites on reservations in 2016 — including at the Washoe Housing Authority in Gardnerville; the Human Development Center in Owyhee; the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Building; the Walker River Paiute Tribe Community Center in Schurz; the Yomba Shoshone Tribal Gym; and the Pyramid Lake Junior and Senior High School in Nixon — and will do so again in 2020.
The party will also offer early voting at four different locations on reservations, at the Las Vegas Indian Center, the Wadsworth Community Building on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe's reservation, the Hungry Valley Recreation Center and at the Washoe Housing Authority.
The polling location is only one part of the equation, though. The other is getting people to actually show up. But Seamans is optimistic. Data provided by Four Directions shows that early votes from precincts in Nixon in 2016 increased 781 percent over those cast in 2012, and Election Day votes from those precincts increased by 180 percent between the two elections, while overall Washoe County voter turnout only increased by 113.7 percent.
“The data shows that the satellite offices bring in new voters,” Seamans said. “The old voters will continue to come, but over and over the data has shown it produces new voters.”
Earlier this year, Teresa Melendez and her husband Brian Melendez had an idea. They were watching a tumultuous political battle playing out on a national level and realized that they wanted the Native community to have a seat at the table. They brought the idea to Sarah Mahler, chair of the Washoe County Democratic Party, who helped them draft and submit bylaws for a new Native American caucus to the state Democratic Party in June.
By October, the state party central committee had overwhelmingly approved them and gave the caucus a seat on the party’s executive board.
“It’s never been done before,” Brian Melendez said.
For Teresa Melendez, it seemed like the natural thing to do. The tribes are a political powerhouse in her home state of Michigan.
“I was blown away when I moved to Nevada,” she said. “The tribes do not have political influence here.”
People only recognize the tribes, she said, when they have money and numbers. That means it’s usually the big gaming tribes that have earned the lion’s share of the attention.
But the couple is hoping to change that. Their short term goals include recruiting Native seats in the state central committee and boosting voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election. Longer term goals include building a bench of Natives interested in running for local, state and national offices, Teresa Melendez said.
And they’re not the only ones. Tribal leaders and Native organizers across the state are ramping up in a number of ways — from voter registration drives and caucus trainings to a presidential candidate forum — in an effort to turn out the biggest Native vote ever in 2020.
“It seems to be the consensus that we are organizing in our pockets with the same ideas, the same goals toward having the Native voice heard, and then we're starting to connect across the state and across the country now because we are all feeling and experiencing similar things,” said Krause, who has drafted the bylaws and recruited an executive board to form a Clark County Native caucus. “So it's kind of happening simultaneously, but now everything is linking up.”
Those pockets will officially converge on Jan. 14 and 15 when tribes from across the state and the country come together to hear from and share their concerns with presidential candidates, educate each other and come up with a game plan ahead of the 2020 election at the Native American presidential forum at UNLV.
“The Native vote in Nevada is a swing vote,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a critical vote that needs to be educated and mobilized, and these forums provide an opportunity for the first time in history for presidential candidates to state their positions on various issues of concern in Indian Country and to be educated about what the voters and the leadership both tribal and community.”
The concern for organizers now is who will actually show up. The Democratic National Committee scheduled its January Democratic presidential debate for Jan. 14 in Iowa. But Seamans is hopeful that they will be able to convince several of the presidential hopefuls to appear via live stream, as they did during the last forum.
The forum itself, he said, will begin with a discussion between the descendants of Wovoka, a prophet from the Northern Paiute Tribe responsible for the spread of the Ghost Dance movement, and the descendants of Wounded Knee, the massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children by the U.S. Army in 1890 and after which the movement was sent underground.
“We’re going to pick up something our ancestors started 130 years ago by having the tribes unite for hope,” Seamans said. “This time it’s going to be for the 2020 election.”
In addition to presidential candidate appearances, the event will feature panels on Native voting, education, the environment and economic development, among other issues.
The forum will also include Native-specific caucus training, which, Seamans said, will include an emphasis on how to advocate in a caucus situation. During the caucus, attendees typically have a chance to persuade people to back their preferred candidate during a so-called realignment period.
“Natives have, forever and ever, not dominated conversation. They usually sit back. They do a lot of listening, but they’re not ones to jump into the middle of an argument and convince them to do something else. It’s just not in our culture,” Seamans said. “That’s going to be the toughest part of the training is to be able to get them to stand up and speak their minds especially to non-Natives. That’s always been difficult culture-wise.”
Some of the individual tribes are planning their own outreach efforts too. Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said that they are currently having conversations about going house to house to register their members to vote, and not just at powwows and special events. He said that their reservation can be walked in a couple of hours, compared to other tribes whose reservations are more spread out.
But for all the polling locations, voter registration drives and caucus trainings, at the end of the day, the most significant hurdle is this: Convincing Natives to exercise their right to vote to shape the future of a government that has too often ignored their needs and actively threatened their way of life.
“Most tribes, tribal members, we’re not Democrat or Republican per se, but we look to the government to uphold their obligations to the tribes,” said Ted Howard, chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, whose reservation spans the Idaho-Nevada border. “I think from both sides we have not really seen that level of protection from the government.”
Howard says it’s hard to get excited about things these days. There’s so much uncertainty, he says. But he’s encouraged by the outreach by some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls to Native communities.
“It’s not something that’s happened before,” Howard said. “I think we’re cautiously optimistic.”
A company is seeking federal permits to construct new reservoirs in the mountains above two Nevada desert lakes in an attempt to harness hydropower and provide stability to an increasingly renewable electricity grid. But the projects’ water consumption and new reservoirs have raised concerns in the basins, where historic water diversions have already diminished the two lakes.
Mineral County, with a case to restore Walker Lake pending before the Supreme Court, plans to intervene in a federal regulatory process because it is worried the proposed project could affect the amount of water in the lake. The Walker River Paiute Tribe shares the county’s concerns. A new reservoir in a canyon of the nearby Wassuk Range could conflict with sacred cultural sites.
“Anything that takes water out of that lake causes us concern,” said Sean Rowe, the district attorney for Mineral County, which has long seen the lake as an important economic resource.
They would operate similar to a large-scale battery. During days when solar panels feed more energy into the grid than utilities want to buy, the projects would use the excess power to pump water from Walker Lake or Pyramid Lake into the newly constructed reservoirs. Once there, the water would sit as a giant pool of potential energy. When demand for power increased at night as solar production waned, the water could be released downhill and run through a power plant.
Premium Energy Holdings suggest that both projects could generate about 2,000 megawatts of power for about 12 hours. (For reference, Los Angeles has a 7,880 megawatt electric capacity.)
Over the past decade, utilities across the West have deployed more renewables, mainly solar and wind. Unlike the coal and gas plants that fueled the 20th century, those new resources are intermittent. Solar runs when the sun is shining. To fully decarbonize, utilities must find a way to capture that energy for use at night. To do this, many utilities have started to couple solar arrays with storage batteries. Premium Energy Holdings wants to do the same thing with hydropower.
“We're going to solar,” said Victor Rojas, the company’s managing director who formerly worked at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We're going to wind. We're getting away from fossil fuels. But then what is going to happen at night? Somebody has to fill the vacuum.”
As for concerns about the water leaving Walker Lake, Rojas noted that most of the water would be returned in a closed loop system. He said his company would make the lake whole for any water that was lost to seepage or evaporation by purchasing water. The project, by pumping water in and out of the lake, would account for a roughly one-foot fluctuation in its elevation.
Yet in its quest to build the uphill reservoirs, the company already faces an uphill battle.
Acquiring water in Walker Basin would set up the company in competition with an environmental group, the Walker Basin Conservancy, which has spent years acquiring water rights from willing farmers. Their goal is to keep more water in the river so that more water ends up at the lake. In the past, diversions have changed the lake’s chemical composition and destroyed fish habitat. By keeping more water in the river, the conservancy hopes to raise the lake and improve fish habitat.
“The proposed project alternatives would all utilize Walker Lake as a reservoir while the lake elevation is already too low to sustain wildlife, including fish and waterfowl,” Jeff Bryant, the conservancy’s executive director, wrote in comments last week to the federal commission.
Bryant added that the “applicants must be able to demonstrate that the project will not result in even a temporary drop in lake elevation or result in an increase in total-dissolved-solids.”
The commission approved a notice for the preliminary permit, allowing groups and jurisdictions to begin commenting on the project. Rojas said the project is still in its infancy, and he plans to meet with concerned parties. A preliminary permit would give Premium Energy Holdings the ability to license the project and conduct feasibility studies. It would not permit construction.
“It’s not a permit to do anything yet,” he said. “[It’s] just to investigate, analyze, meet and confer.”
But Amber Torres, the chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said the company should have reached out to the tribe before it submitted an application with the federal commission.
Torres is concerned that the proposal could undermine progress to restore Walker Lake, the namesake for the tribe, which called themselves Agai Diccutta, or trout eaters. Moreover, she is worried the proposed reservoirs could be sited in land that is culturally-significant for the tribe.
“Everyone always seems to think we can come in at the very end,” Torres said.
Although most of the comments have been filed on the Walker Lake project, the company submitted a similar application with the federal commission, proposing a similar hydropower project at Pyramid Lake. That project would be in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation.
Alan Mandell, the tribe’s vice chairman, said he was familiar with the project proposal as one of the parties that noticed in the application. The tribe, he said, has yet to consider the project.
"We haven't done a review on it,” he said.
Rojas said that in addition to helping transition to renewable energy, both projects could benefit the local economies. He said that the company chose those locations because of the amount of water available, the proximity to transmission lines and the necessary mountainous topography. By connecting to the California grid, the power could be marketed to Los Angeles or other regional utilities. Los Angeles operates a similar project at a Southern California lake.
Rojas said that no projects will move forward without community buy-in. The company, he said, intends to work with groups to address any environmental, social and economic concerns.
“Nothing will happen if [it’s] not with the consensus of stakeholders,” he said.
An effort to designate Indigenous Peoples Day on the same day as Columbus Day in Clark County failed in recent weeks, much to the disappointment of some Native Americans who say celebrating a holiday in honor of the Italian explorer obscures the history of indigenous people and ignores the harms caused by colonization.
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom proposed at a meeting last month to establish Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October, which would have been today and coincides with the federal observance of Columbus Day. But Commissioner Larry Brown opposed the motion.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for this commission to pass judgment on Columbus, whether he was good, evil or in between,” Brown said at the September commission meeting. “I can’t support that. We already have two days, so pick one or at least collaborate with the state.”
Segerblom refused, saying he would prefer to go back to the drawing board rather than designate the holiday on any day besides Columbus Day, which is not a paid holiday for Nevada workers but is for state employees in 21 other states. The board did not take up the issue again.
The exchange marked the second time a Nevada governmental body has deliberated over designating Indigenous Peoples Day. When Segerblom was an assemblyman, he successfully passed state legislation in 2017 that designated it.
Although the bill originally proposed replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, the final version approved by former Gov. Brian Sandoval authorized the designation for Aug. 9. For many Native Americans in the state, the August holiday does not do enough to educate the public about Christopher Columbus and the ways European colonization affected Native Americans.
“Even for first graders, the materials we have [show] early America [as] complete emptiness and one lone pioneer,” said Mercedes Krause, a member of the Nevada Commission on Minority Affairs. During public comment at the September meeting, Minority Affairs provided a letter of support for Indigenous Peoples Day.
“To [not have] Indigenous Peoples Day on [Columbus] day is [to] ignore the fact that there were people here already. And that’s one of the problems we still have,” Krause said in an interview.
According to a 2018 Census, more than 51,000 Nevada residents are American Indian and Alaska Native, not to mention mixed-race Native Americans. In Clark County, that race group comprises 1.2 percent of the total population, a slightly lower proportion than the 1.7 percent of the state’s total population.
Speaking on behalf of her UNLV Native American Alumni Association, Krause says Indigenous Peoples Day can have a dignified celebration alongside Columbus Day. Others in the Native American community think the federal holiday needs to be repealed and replaced altogether.
“[Columbus’ arrival] will always be a part of history, but that’s exactly where it needs to stay,” said Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “For — I don’t know how long now — we’ve said they’re still teaching lies in the school system. They’re still promoting that there was a good relationship between the pilgrims and Indians.”
In place of the lessons U.S. schools have been teaching about Columbus, the proposed Indigenous Peoples Day would promote a more realistic depiction of what European contact was like for the people who already inhabited the land. And the movement is picking up steam.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who received financing from Spain to find a sea route to Asia, which resulted in his unintended encounter of the American continent in 1492. Italian-Americans, who see Columbus as a symbol of their heritage, have been a main group in opposition to Indigenous Peoples Day replacing Columbus Day.
According to Alan Mandell, vice-chair of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Northern Nevada, textbooks too often depict a benign “discovery” of the American continent. In the eyes of Native Americans, that first encounter led to genocide, disease and mass displacement from ancestral lands.
“We’ve heard concerns from Italian people and other people [saying] why [are you picking on] Columbus? Historically, what he had done and what those generations had done to indigenous populations shouldn’t be glorified,” said Mandell in an October interview. “We should be aware, and it should be understood what Native Americans have gone through in order to survive. The colonization of Indigenous Peoples throughout the country was a hardship.”
While it is difficult to know the population of the American continent pre-colonization, it is widely accepted that 95 percent of the Native American population died because of war and disease that followed Columbus’ arrival. His expedition also kidnapped and enslaved indigenous people.
Native Americans in Nevada to this day have reported a disregard for their sovereignty when it comes to managing natural resources and honoring treaties.
In Northern Nevada, the Walker River Paiute Tribe and Yerington Paiute Tribe have been dealing with groundwater contamination from a mine that started operating in the 1950s. Opinions differ between the two tribes on whether to defer clean-up to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) or go through federal processes.
Former Gov. Sandoval and Gov. Steve Sisolak have maintained that a state agency is better suited to take care of the contamination. Chairman Torres, who pushed for federal clean-up, said in a recent interview that the deferral to the state was an affront to Walker River Tribe.
On the other hand, the Yerington Paiute Tribe has indicated support for Sisolak’s deferral decision. Chairwoman Laurie Thom has said she sees potential for improving collaboration between state agencies and tribes, through working with the NDEP.
In Southern Nevada, 227,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge — an area currently managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife service that is considered sacred to indigenous Paiute tribes — are up for consideration to become a part of the U.S. Air Force Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). The Moapa Band of Paiutes issued a tribal resolution last year opposing the expansion of the test range into the refuge, but the decision rests with the state.
“I’ve met with the military bases, with both the generals, and we’re working with our federal delegation,” Sisolak said of Desert Wildlife Refuge at a September event in Las Vegas.
Krause, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and lives in Las Vegas, said she attended one of the public comment hearings for the fate of Desert Wildlife Refuge and was distressed to see how widespread this pattern is.
“My community of the Black Hills [in South Dakota] has already gone through this. To see a community in this day and age actively going through this struggle — it’s happening in our time,” Krause said.
Indigenous people today
Supporters of Indigenous Peoples Day maintain that the portrayal of their history needs to change, as well as how the state treats Indigenous Peoples who are alive today. Krause provided an example from when she was on an advisory council of teachers for the Nevada Department of Education.
“Our education policies are some of the most important right now. And [Native American] statistics were not included on our students’ achievement [report],” said Krause. “If I had not been in that room, no one else would have spoken up about it. With all of these different areas of importance in our community, we need to have our community’s representation there.”
Recent legislation aims to improve collaboration between tribes and state agencies by requiring any agency that works regularly with tribes to appoint a tribal liaison. The bill also requires annual meetings between the governor and tribal leaders.
“Our reservations offer services and the state offers services. If we can collaborate to make those a better service for all of our people, I think it would just be a better America,” said Torres, who worked with Democratic Assemblywoman Sarah Peters to get the bill passed.
Krause said she would like to see state and tribal collaboration go toward improving tribal health care. Poor dental health, diabetes, heart disease and lower than average life expectancy are more prevalent among the Native American community than the general population.
Although Krause can access Indian Health Services (IHS) from the Las Vegas Paiute site in town for non-emergency care, she said she has to drive five hours to get to the closest hospital that offers IHS.
For many Native Americans, adjusting health care, education and other services to better accommodate Native Americans would be welcome steps toward reparations for colonization. More than 500 years after Columbus sailed the Atlantic, indigenous people continue to report neglect, disregard for tribal sovereignty and unequal treatment by the government.
“We need to educate people that Native Americans are here, alive, and that there’s plenty of engineers, doctors and business people [who] are Native American,” said Mandell. “We don’t live in the past, we’ve been living here [for] a while and we still practice our culture today. And I think a holiday like Indigenous Peoples Day can help dispel the myth that we are a culture of the past.”